It’s one of nature’s confounding ironies that the last stronghold of the black-crowned night heron in Illinois lies in the few undeveloped parcels that remain between the landfill mountains and the rusting industrial sheds of Chicago’s Tenth Ward. Every year these birds return to the Calumet wetlands from points as far away as Belize, Guatemala, and Cuba. They come, as their ancestors have since the retreat of the glaciers thousands of years ago, to the remnants of what was once 50,000 acres of wetland and prairie. The numbers vary from year to year, but several thousand night herons still roost in colonies in the midst of this industrial and garbage wasteland, a place environmental activists hope to one day turn into a national park.

For years Marlene and Joe Nowak have been watching both the black-crowned and yellow-crowned night heron in the Calumet wetlands. (The nesting location of the yellow-crowned is a closely guarded secret among south-side birders.) Joe is a professional photographer and works as regional steward for the Nature Conservancy’s Calumet Prairie Restoration project. Marlene is a regional ecologist for the same project.

There are two major night heron rookeries in Illinois, both of them in the Tenth Ward. Indian Ridge Marsh, where the Nowaks took me last fall, has been a rookery since 1991. To the west of the access road are the landfill ridges. To the east are Cargill’s grain elevators. On the side of the road is everything from worn-out sofas to dead dogs.

“You see that clump of cottonwoods over there?” says Joe. “That whole line of trees was a night heron rookery at one time. From 1987 to ’89 a colony of night herons nested in the grove. When the Water Reclamation District started construction on those water-aeration waterfalls for the river it drove out the herons. We think they moved here to Indian Ridge.”

“When they constructed the ‘natural’ wetlands, they ruined the real wetlands,” says Marlene, laughing.

The continuing assault on the wetlands started with the railroads, which crisscrossed the landscape and confused the drainage patterns. Next Lake Calumet was made into a port, and steel mills and grain elevators rose where wetlands had been filled in. Then during World War II the city decided the Tenth Ward should serve as its waste receptacle. Yet all the while the birds continued to nest in the area.

Joe Nowak explains as he heads for the cottonwoods that Indian Ridge is isolated enough that the birds aren’t often disturbed, though last spring people drove four-wheelers in to go fishing and later some dirt bikers rode through. The utilities also came in to work on their lines and pushed the birds deep into the marsh. And then there were the skeet shooters; hunting is illegal on private property in the rest of Chicago, but it’s allowed in the Tenth Ward because of a quaint grandfather clause.

“We’re having problems with people going in there, just walking through without any consideration for the young,” says Joe. “The young would get really excited– they’d go walking up and down the limbs, and they’d fall off to the ground. And that’s it.”

“It’s not that they were purposely trying to hurt the birds,” says Marlene. “When we go in we’ll just go in a short way, and then we’ll stop and wait 15 or 20 minutes until they get used to us. And then we’ll go a little further, just ease on in. And if we see they’re starting to get a little disturbed, then we stop immediately and stay still. But if you don’t know to do that, just walking through can get them very upset.”

The access path is flooded so we approach the rookery by walking along the Norfolk Southern tracks, breathing in the annoying aroma of the creosote-soaked ties. Seaside goldenrod, which is native to the Atlantic coast, sprouts along the tracks where salt has spilled out of boxcars.

“The birds are pretty well acclimated to the trains going by,” says Joe. “They don’t feel it’s a threat. They’ll nest right up to the edge. In the spring, if you have a spotting scope, you can see quite a bit of activity from the railroad tracks without going in the cottonwood grove.”

Cottonwoods grow in poorly drained soil and are generally the first trees in a recently disturbed area. Large nests checker the branches in this grove. Sometimes the returning birds build new nests, but they often just reinforce the old ones.

“They’re constructed of reeds and sticks,” says Marlene. “You wonder how they can stay in the trees. They look so fragile, it appears that the lightest little weight would knock them out.”

“Our photos at Indian Ridge show 500 to 600 nests,” says Joe. “Primarily you’ll have the black-crowned night herons and maybe a half dozen or more great egret nests. We estimate there were only 230 active black-crowned night heron nests this past year.” He adds, “When you actually get into a rookery it’s real hustle bustle. They’re real noisy birds. Nothing stands still.”

“There’re so many of them that if you’re in there when the young are a pretty good size the smell of fish from their droppings is overwhelming,” says Marlene.

“Yeah. The first time I took Marlene in there for serious photography I’m leading up ahead–”

“He had on a baseball cap–I needed an umbrella!”

“The herons are fussing and carrying on, and every now and then they just spew one way or the other. Marlene can usually handle anything, but she didn’t hesitate when I asked her if she wanted to leave.”

As their name suggests, night herons differ from other heron species in that they feed after dark. Up to 1,000 birds leave the heronry en masse at dusk, flying 15 miles or more to forage. Each stakes out its own feeding ground. While there are nestlings to feed, the male heron does most of the foraging, returning to his family several times during the night to disgorge fish, frogs, insect larvae, small crustaceans, and even mice into their mouths.

At dawn the male returns to the nest and greets his mate in a ceremony in which male and female bow to each other and touch or rattle their bills together. During the day they will hang around the rookery, loafing or working on their nests.

The herons build their nests in April, when the leaves are just starting to bud. The males use reinforced old nests for their courtship display. The suitors, whose legs change color from pale yellow to salmon pink during courtship, advertise their availability by standing erect, swaying from one foot to another, then terminating their dance in a hunched position while they mock preen their bellies. The males also swish their long white plumes at potential mates. By the time the mating pairs have their young the leaves are out and the nests are well camouflaged.

“We usually see two or more young per nest,” says Joe. “As soon as they can walk around they’re up and down the limbs. They look like they’re going to fall off–they’ll be hanging by one foot. Sometimes when we’re photographing we’ll be sitting there for hours, and you just about have a nervous breakdown by the time you’re done, because these guys will be sitting way on the edge of the nest.”

“Emotionally you’re sending out these vibes trying to hold them up,” says Marlene.

“But they make it,” says Joe. “There’s some that do fall out and die, but there’s so many that are in there that they still maintain a decent population. The biggest problem is human impact. That’s really the killer.”

Since the 1700s 85 percent of the state’s wetlands have been lost, and while the wetland provisions of the Clean Water Act have put a brake on marsh filling, the new Republican majority in Congress may make wetlands protection more precarious than ever.

The herons’ habitat in the Calumet area is on unprotected private marshland. Indian Ridge Marsh is a patchwork when it comes to ownership. Many lots were sold separately earlier in the century, and some of those owners later donated their lots to churches, which don’t have to pay taxes on the land. It’s a time-consuming task just to find out who the property owners are.

Asked why the herons prefer an area that’s often described as the armpit of Chicago over more logical havens, Joe says, “It’s tradition. They’ve been coming to Calumet for heaven only knows how long, even as Waste Management kept filling in their wetlands with garbage dumps and crowding them out. All that’s left are little segments of areas that the wildlife has still held on to. Still they don’t give up.”

The other major heron colony in the state is just a few miles from Indian Ridge Marsh. Big Marsh is a collection of ponds and marshes interrupted by steel-mill slag mounds carpeted with aggressive weeds. Acme Steel’s coke plant looms in the background, and rust-colored water seeps from the slag.

Birders have arrived with their scopes, which they’ve set up on tripods. A bird-hotline tip has alerted them to the presence of an avocet, rarely seen east of the Dakotas, and swimming in the pond is a single alabaster-white bird with dark brush strokes on its back.

Generally black-crowned night herons nest in trees, but at Big Marsh they nest in an island of phragmites, tall alien reeds that have pushed out the native cattails. This habitat is unsuitable for cormorants and other heron species, which might otherwise compete with black-crowned herons for nests.

For nearly a decade Sue Elston has monitored the night heron population at Big Marsh, first for the Army Corps of Engineers, then, for the past six years, as a wetlands specialist for the U.S. EPA. She spends much of her time surveying area marshes in chest waders. She counts the night heron eggs in May before they’ve hatched, so she doesn’t run the risk of driving the chicks out of the nest. In 1993 she counted 662 nests–90 of them empty–in a one-day census of Big Marsh. “At least I don’t have to worry about them falling out of the trees like at Indian Ridge,” she says.

“At Big Marsh the water is within an inch or two of the top of your waders,” she says. “You’re always hoping you’re not going to fall over. The phragmites are so dense in a lot of places you can hardly see ahead of you. It’s how I always imagined a jungle would be. It gets very difficult to continue to walk in a straight line. You’re just kind of pushing your way through the vegetation, and all of a sudden you come to an area that you see is different–there’s open water. The nests tend to be around the edges of the water.

“It looks like this completely dead sea of phragmite reeds, but when the birds first become aware of you then all of a sudden you start hearing their calls, their little ‘wok’ call. It’s a real hoarse-sounding, single-tone call. Sections of the colony will just lift up, and you’ll see hundreds of these big birds rise up into the air at once. The sky is almost black with them, and the noise is deafening. Then they’ll settle back down, and as you move you’ll see another group go up. That also helps me to figure out where they’re at for the year.”

Many herons don’t fly away but examine her from a proper distance. “Up close the night herons have this really red eye, and you just feel like they’re giving you the evil eye,” she says. “It’s a knowing look, almost an aloofness. There’s a real difference between the look that I see in the eye of a bird and the look when I see a wild animal like, say, a wolf.”

The Big Marsh has a single owner, the Oak Brook-based WMX Corporation (formerly Waste Management), a leading landlord in the Tenth Ward. This 300-acre tract is the largest undeveloped wetland in Chicago. Waste Management dug a ditch to drain the marsh in the fall of 1981, which apparently led to some nests being abandoned the following year. For the next couple of years the herons were spotted in a cottonwood grove west of the O’Brien Lock and Dam. Then the Army Corps of Engineers made the company plug up the ditch, and in 1984 most of the birds returned. In the early 80s Waste Management also applied for a permit to create a garbage dump on the site, but withdrew the application when there was a public outcry.

Elston says that in the past few years the company has shown more concern for Big Marsh. “The EPA is working with Waste Management, and they’re going to put in a special structure at Big Marsh to maintain proper water controls,” she says. “Muskrats create the habitat that the birds need to nest in. But over the years muskrats use the reeds to build lodges and eventually will denude the area if you don’t cycle the water levels up and down. So we have to draw the water levels down so the muskrats leave and the reeds can grow back, and then bring the water levels back. This is a standard management technique for these cyclic emergent marshes.”

Nothing stands still in nature. What might be a good home for the night herons one year could be ruined by muskrats the next. “In presettlement times the birds had more choices, and these groups moved around within an area,” says Elston. “In order to keep viable heron populations you have to have complexes of wetlands, so that if the Big Marsh isn’t suitable one year–if it’s too high or too low–then the heron can go to another site that year, if that’s in a better phase.”

For now, wetlands are protected from being filled in, but the way adjacent land is used has a tremendous impact on them. That’s why local environmental activists have proposed that the National Park Service create an urban park in Calumet along the lines of parks in New York and San Francisco. The proposed Calumet Ecological Park would turn the remaining wild areas between the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore into a series of green-way ecological corridors, with areas for public recreation segregated from havens for bird nesting.

The big draw of the Tenth Ward park would be the birds–and not just the night herons. Twenty-five birds on the state’s endangered list have been found in the area, including moorhens, king rails, and yellow-headed blackbirds. The Lake Michigan shoreline is like a funnel on the second biggest flyway in North America (after the Mississippi River Valley Flyway). Aviary traffic tends to pile up along the lakefront because most birds don’t want to fly over a large expanse of water. When birds get to the southern part of Chicago they see an expanse of wetlands with manmade and natural waterways and interdunal residual marshes, pockets of poorly drained water left from the glacial retreat. The wetlands, prairies, and groves of the Lake Calumet area are hotels and restaurants for the massive spring and fall migrations: For pectoral sandpipers migrating southeast from Siberia via Alaska. For European species, including ruff gulls and lesser black-backed gulls. For warblers, finches, and sparrows flying up from the southeastern U.S., the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

The Calumet Ecological Park would guarantee the night heron a measure of sanctuary, yet leave the major industries intact. Work is already under way to create green-way bike paths. The plan has been received with enthusiasm by residents of nearby Hegewisch, who haven’t quite recovered from the Calumet Airport scare.

The park may seem like a pipe dream, but it makes a lot of sense. The area it would encompass rivals the Everglades in terms of biological diversity–it’s probably one of the richest ecological areas in the country, with its wet and dry prairies, woodlands, perched and low wetlands, river systems, and open lakes. “Lake Calumet is an interesting juxtaposition,” says Elston. “Here there are these big steel works sitting here rusting like big hulking monsters–the whole place just seems almost like a moonscape. And then there are these islands of green with an amazing diversity of birds–many more species than I’ve seen in major wilderness sites. To me that’s a sign of hope that they’ve held on this long.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.